The good enough parent

Perfectionism and modern day parenting

As a special needs teacher, I work with families every day, going into their homes and helping young people with learning difficulties or social and emotional health problems to make progress academically. This role often involves listening to stressed out parents. As a teacher in school, I also spent time making calls home or holding meetings for chats with parents. As a friend to others with children, I see people trying to raise children in a world that is more complex already than the one in which I raised mine. It’s a minefield of social media, online bullying, distance learning, and increasingly pressuring expectations for them to go to university and get a degree.

When my parents raised my siblings and me, I do not think for one second that they often stopped to wonder if they were doing it right. In conversations now, mum might reflect whether she made mistakes, but this is 30 years later! At the time, they seemed pretty certain that what they were doing was correct. I don’t remember receiving apologies from either of them, or hearing them ruminating over a perceived failure!

And yet nowadays, I hear so many comments like: ‘I just feel as though I’m letting them down all the time’. ‘I don’t feel as though I’m good enough as a mum’. ‘I feel so guilty’. ‘I have terrible mum guilt’. ‘I worry all the time that they will become unwell’. ‘I worry that I’m going to mess them up’. ‘What if they never forgive me for mistakes that I make?’ ‘I feel awful because I didn’t (insert some type of caretaking gesture that might have been pleasant but definitely wasn’t necessary)’.

I remember feeling guilty when I had to leave Will with a childminder whom he did not like. He used to complain bitterly about going once a week for two hours at a time. A wise friend told me to stop feeling guilty because I wasn’t neglecting him, the childminder was a lovely kind person, and Will was miserable only because he wanted mummy and actually being with somebody else for a couple of hours was not doing him any harm at all. He has subsequently grown up without any longstanding resentment about this trauma!

In other respects, I did let my kids down. I had poor mental health, for a start, for years, and didn’t know it. I knew that there was something wrong with me, because I’d fly into a rage about minor things after being as patient as the proverbial saint for weeks on end, and I was an awful mum at times, saying and doing things in an explosive temper that I then grovelled about afterwards. I thought it was just a case of learning to control myself and become a better person. I felt shame about it. And yet, now, my children love me and accept me despite these failures. We have an open dialogue about it, and they can see and respect that I have grown loads as a person and have worked on my mental health.

And yet, I hear younger parents than me striving continually to be perfect. They worry about losing their patience, missing a symptom of illness for a couple of days or failing to check everything in the child’s school bag one morning. They feel shame and guilt over really minor things. They feel responsible for everything that the child experiences every day. They want to wrap the child in cotton wool and ensure that their lives are always happy and always positive.

This collective obsession with perfectionism is driving people insane! Our younger generation have worse mental health than ever. The wrapping them up in cotton wool isn’t achieving anything. When parents are anxious and worried, the kids then become anxious and worried about the parents’ anxiety and worry. It becomes a vicious cycle of doom, with kids not opening up to parents for fear of triggering an anxiety and guilt response.

I have had to learn the hard way that my anxiety and perfectionism isn’t my kids’ problem. When they have suffered with health problems both physical and mental, I have had to learn to deal separately with my emotional reaction. The worst things a parent can say are: ‘I am so worried about you’, and ‘I can’t stand it when you are suffering’. By saying those things, we make their suffering about us. One of my children took the time to tell me so and I am forever grateful for that honesty. I am grateful because, faced with my own anxiety, guilt and shame, and unable to share it with her, I sought therapy and grew as a result of that.

If I were able to talk to my younger self as a parent, I would tell her that she doesn’t have to be perfect. She just has to show up every day and do her best. Many her kids experience is out of her control. They will go to school and get treated unfairly by a teacher, bullied by some hideous friend, excluded from a party, put in detention for forgetting their pencil, dumped by a boyfriend or girlfriend and suffer with physical of mental illnesses that we cannot protect them from or prevent. From a parent, they need consistency and self-care. We have to take care of ourselves so that they can see how it’s done. They need us to be mentally robust and to have strategies for peace and calm internally and externally. They also need us to be able to get it wrong and to then take accountability for that and, when needed, to apologise and to learn from it.

There is a term coined by a child psychologist, Bowlby I believe, that the ‘good enough’ parent really is good enough. Perfectionism and unrealistic expectation has no place in family life. We muddle through and mess it up, and then get up and try again. And again. The most important thing to do is to love: both the kids and ourselves! I am close to my adult kids now, despite being a hopeless twat a lot of the time, because I loved them, I tried my best with what I had at the time, and if that’s good enough for them, then it’s good enough for me!

When your loved ones think you are going to Hell.

This. Is. Tricky.

I have a close bond with my mum. Despite my breaking away from the way she raised me, tightly bound by fundamentalist doctrines and lifestyle, we have a deep and abiding love for one another.

I care for her as she has cared for me. This is a human love, born from the nurture that she gave me: the bedtime stories, the cuddles, the walks in the woods and the warming heart-to-heart cuppas around the table in my teens.

She was a good mum – the sort who you feel goodness emanating from like sunlight. Her love was tangible and it got me through the abandonment in my first marriage, the stress and anxiety of a child’s mental illness and even my own mental illness in the form of an eating disorder. Knowing that she had my back was enough, at times, to keep putting one foot in front of the other. She didn’t approve of my divorce, but she approved of me, and that was enough.

Mum has supported me through re-marriage, which she disagrees with. She is always on the other end of the phone to chat things through with. We are close.

As for me, I strive to be there for her as she cares for my dad, who has dementia. Her role is a tough one as every day he loses a little more of himself. She needs equipment to get him through each day and carry out his little routines of washing, toileting, eating and getting back into bed for the whole, boring, unremarkable process to start again. Anyone who knows or is a carer will know how it is.

In my turn, I am committed to being there for her as she is now in a weaker position and I love her with all my heart. She is an amazing carer with a determination to keep her man with her until she can no longer manage. He is the luckiest man alive when it comes to a wife, and I have her back as much as I can whilst still having to work to earn a crust.

Yesterday I had a shock as Mum received a card from a friend and couldn’t read the writing. ‘I’ll read it out’, I offered, only to read that the friend is praying for mum’s family members’ salvation. I read out the words as though they were the most natural thing in the world, trying to blank out what I was reading, knowing that it was deeply upsetting but putting my responses to one side. When I finished reading it, there was no comment. Mum looked a little embarrassed. We went about the rest of the day as usual.

It has bugged me ever since. How can we really be close to people who believe, deep down, that we are going to an eternal hell of perpetual flames and suffer forever?

From their perspective, the bible says this is true. ‘Should not perish’ suggests that unbelievers will ‘perish’ (‘perish’ isn’t really the same as burning forever but there we are). Jesus talked about Hell though. It’s clear that the evangelicals have put bits together and concluded that Hell is real and that anyone who is not a Christian is going there. For my Mum, this isn’t something that she relishes. I expect it causes her a great deal of anguish, hence the prayers. But, I wonder, if they REALLY believed that their children were going to bodily be tortured in a furnace forever, would they go about their days in a normal manner? Is there cognitive dissonance going on here?

I am trying to see it from her perspective. I know she wouldn’t want it to be true but is resigned to the ‘fact’ that it is. Perhaps I should have compassion for somebody with such an abhorrent and miserable belief.

But here is a thing. How can they be so happy and joyful about going to Heaven forever to be with the Lord, when most of the world around them are going to Hell forever to suffer torments? This is something that I would love to ask but probably never will.

It isn’t Mum’s fault that I read the card. She never talks to me about her beliefs in this respect. She didn’t know that I was going to read it. These are the sorts of rationalisations and defences that can sometimes calm me and enable me to move past things. But they’re not really working. The issue has got me riled up.

The card was a stark reminder that, despite it all, my own mother believes that I am doomed unless I become a different person. I will never be able to believe that Jesus is the only way. I have too much respect for Muslims, Hindus, Jews, atheists, agnostics and good people everywhere. I will never be able to believe that God, if She is real, has only space for one branch of faith. Is a faith in eternal torment for unbelievers even a faith? People need salvation from what? Their own God?

I have a love in my heart that is pure and good. I don’t need a label for it. It is just who I am and it’s good enough.

The card made me sad. It completely disrupted the feeling of harmony with my mother that I have enjoyed for years. I need time to recover from that. It was upsetting.

A lot of life is about muddling through and trying to be authentic and real despite the challenges of loved ones who differ. I cannot be other than who I am and, I suppose, neither can my mum. Therein lies the problem.

I expect that I, and anybody else in my situation, must find a way to box these matters, shelve them up, never open them, and focus on the commonality that they share with their loved ones. I have three brothers and we all cope with the cruelty of fundamentalism in different ways. My youngest brother knows the bible better than I do as he was raised to be a preacher, and he teaches A Level Religious Studies with academic rigour and theological understanding. He finds immense satisfaction in intellectual rejection of fundamentalism.Some anger, some forgiveness, a lot of goodwill and kindness; one has religious faith, the rest of us do not. For me, I suspect that we need to somehow find a way to focus on what we share: the memories, the laughter, the weird, bendy thumbs that we all have and the mutual support that we offer.

Finally, the family that we choose – our friends. I share this here because I know that there are so many who understand and are in this situation. I know how many people forge a path through their escape from nasty fundamentalist beliefs and how deep the hurt goes when confronted with those beliefs in the present day. We can find fellowship with each other and with friends who share our values. Friends are the family that we choose. For me, after this brush with something so painful that I don’t think I can raise it or discuss it with my mum, I need a break. I need my friends, my space, my husband and my own company to recalibrate and rejuvenate.

Woman in Adultery

Trigger warning: A poem written during a time of despair, this explores themes of religious judgment, condemnation, gender inequity and divine forgiveness. Not a morning cuppa kind of read as it’s visceral and violent.

The inevitable judgment descends.

Voices in the corridor outside.

Her lover melts into the background.

He will never feel the full weight of condemnation,

 an unfettered, liberally raised male.

The door busts open, battered by blood-lust,

hateful hands grasp the soft skin of her upper arms.

Sobbing, she stumbles down the muted hotel corridors.

‘Take her to that Jesus of Nazareth’. 

‘Yeah, he’ll have to condemn her. 

Him with all his forgiveness;

he’ll have to acknowledge The Law.

She’s guilty and she even knows it. 

Look at her, snotting and snivelling’. 

Tart.  Liar.  Bitch. 

She doesn’t know Christ, she’s never known him.

He died the death that we deserve, they said.

Stretched flesh hung in toe-curling agony,

blotched, weeping face like an over-ripe plum,

a scorching suffocation,

solemnly described every Sunday.

‘This is his body, broken for us.’

‘This is his blood, spilled in our stead.’

And now they’re dragging her along the street…..

Dad once said he’d break her neck.

Now they’re going to break her bones.

She’s seen others, floppy limbed,

brains spilling out on the sand.

Smashing tearing chunks of skin and hair,

and after that, the God

who’d turn his face away:

‘Depart from me, I never knew you’.

Waking up cold with sweat,

Stumbling through darkness to the bathroom,

giddy with the magnitude of nothingness.

A doctrine of violence,

of slaughtered firstborn sons, youths killed by bears,

milk-mouthed,  peachy-headed babies

 ripped from their mothers’ breasts

and skewered by marauding warriors at the Lord’s command.

A gaping eternity of flame that tortures but does not consume.

As a child, padding through darkness

 every night to make sure

Mummy and Daddy

hadn’t been Raptured away

in the twinkling of an eye.

What about Christ?

Sitting calmly there in the sand,

he turns  from conversation.

Thrown to the floor she waits,

naked, miniscule.

They tower above her.

She never was the same as them.

Now they’ve got her and they’re

going to do what they should have done

years ago –

bury her to the neck in the sand.

Her head will be tiny and trapped and

unable to twist or turn any more

they will snuff her out,

til all that’s left is a broken skull

and a mess for the vultures to clean up. 

Quite right, too.

Now just a matter of time.

A lifetime.

She hears their voices staccato sharp.

Jesus, drawing in the sand.

The crowd are silenced.

 ‘Let he who is without sin cast the first stone’.

……………………………………………

Too many fuckers forgot.

The Art of Failure

Making things better is the mission that drives me. In every aspect of life, I try to make things better for myself.

Making things better is the mission that drives me.  In every aspect of life, I try to make things better for myself.  Relationships, nutrition, work life, home environment, fitness and strength, education and understanding of the world.  It’s not just myself that I try to better: other people and animals are a part of my mission.  In my teaching career, I have strived to provide children with a better understanding of literature and the worlds within the texts that we read.  As a mum, I worked relentlessly to give my children a better childhood than mine, and better opportunities as they grew up.  As a friend and acquaintance, I try to support others to achieve better states of mind and happier lives.   As a vegan, I want to improve animal rights and the environment.   

Alongside these worthy thoughts and dreams, I have become aware of a subtext, born directly from my inner ‘truth’ that I must always get better.  I regularly find myself pestered by thoughts and ruminations about all the times in my life that I have got things wrong, and I haven’t known how to handle the sense of failure.   The list is long and goes back to incidents at school where I made up stories for attention.  ‘My cat has had kittens’, I told the class one afternoon, in circle time.  When a friend turned up at the house, with her mum, to buy one, the truth was revealed.  I’d made it up because I wanted the class to look at me with the ‘oohs’ and ‘aaaahs’ that other children received, with their exciting lives.  I can still feel the shame of that doorstep conversation, with my mortified mum denying the existence of any kittens, and my friend’s accusatory voice.  ‘But Ruth told the whole class!’ she persisted, disappointed and shocked. 

I don’t intend to write a list of my failures here.  The kitten story is difficult enough to confess, even now, although it happened when I was five.  There are many more.  I’ve been bitchy, two-faced, untruthful, cruel, weak and immature.  I have a failed marriage, which still bothers me.  He wasn’t the only one who messed up.  I did, too.  Many, many times.  It’s true that we were never compatible, and something was always off from the get-go, but there were times that I behaved badly and it’s difficult to live with that.

Why is it so difficult to know that I haven’t always been ‘good’?  I guess in my case there is a lot of conditioning behind that.  A Christian girl should be (insert a list of self-sacrificing bullshit).  Raised in a small sect of conservative Christianity, wearing a headscarf in church and being taught that men are leaders and women should submit to their leadership, I knew that I wasn’t supposed to feel, or express, anything challenging.  Taught that self-denial is a virtue, I learned to keep my true self hidden, and I simply behaved ‘well’ and mimicked the words and actions of others, to ensure my own acceptance and safety.  It has always felt like a terrible thing to say, ‘I failed’.  Getting things wrong is not acceptable.  I have tied myself in knots, time after time, trying to convince myself that what I did was understandable, and what I said was actually alright.  Given the circumstances, I couldn’t have done different etc etc.  ‘I failed’ has never been a phrase that I could live with.  It has seemed like a pointing finger – pointing to damnation and self-loathing.  In trying to forgive and accept myself, I have exhausted my frazzled mind attempting to justify and explain away my mistakes and wrongdoings.  When asking myself, ‘Am I a good person?’, I find that the failures make the answer a firm ‘no’.

Until this morning.  As I bumbled about, getting my breakfast and cogitating on the previous few days, analysing everything and anything as usual, something changed in my thinking.  I considered a recent failure, and instead of trying to justify it to myself, I said aloud, ‘I failed’.  The world did not change.  I said it again, with a growing smile: ‘I failed’.  It was strangely freeing and acceptable as I found myself accepting that failure is human.  We can be glorious and we can be diabolical.  I have been glorious and I have been diabolical.  We all fail.  Instead of justifying and explaining, I accepted, this morning, that I sometimes fail, and that’s not great but neither is it a disaster.  It is a fact.  If I wish to forgive myself, I must first acknowledge that I was wrong.  It wasn’t OK.  It was crap.  But that doesn’t make me any worse than the next person.  I’m no better and I’m no worse.  The average person gets many things wrong.  Even the most saintly type has a bad day.  So today I see my failures.  They make me human.  ‘I failed’.  And what?  It would be impossible to stop trying to get things right, to take the better path and to be the kindest version of myself possible every day.  But when I fail, I fail – and from now on, those are the times that I will put my arms around my fragile, failing self and remind myself that forgiveness and compassion are the most important qualities of human kindness, even and especially when it comes to ourselves.

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